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Men's final a flashback for two 'old-timers'

Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi look like kids again in their semifinal victories.

By KEITH NIEBUHR, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 8, 2002

NEW YORK -- Give it up for the old guys.

In a sport in which players are in their prime at 22, thinking about retirement at 27 and often sitting in rocking chairs at 32, two elder statesmen, each of whom has been written off for dead more than once, have created a remarkable Big Apple buzz.

In their respective semifinal wins Saturday, 32-year-old Andre Agassi and 31-year-old Pete Sampras played, and at times acted, like kids, sprinting with fresh legs, pumping fists and waving to adoring crowds in triumphs at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

The result is the first Grand Slam final between men over 30 in 30 years. The last was 37-year-old Ken Rosewall's win over 36-year-old Mal Anderson at the 1972 Australian. The last time it happened in this event? Try 1929.

"This is New York, baby!" Agassi said after beating top-ranked and top-seeded Lleyton Hewitt 6-4, 7-6 (7-5), 6-7, 6-2. Earlier, Sampras topped Sjeng Schalken 7-6 (8-6), 7-6 (7-4), 6-2.

"Where else would you rather be? This is it. It's going to be a blast," Agassi said.

Agassi and Sampras have played 33 times, with Sampras holding a 19-14 lead. They have met in four major finals, and Sampras has won three of those, including one at the 1990 Open when he was 19 and another at the '95 Open. Sampras won at Wimbledon in '99, and Agassi won in Australia in '95.

Last year the two played in a memorable Open quarterfinal, a dramatic four-set thriller Sampras won.

Sampras, a four-time Open champ and all-time leader with 13 major titles, is playing his eighth final. Agassi, winner of two Open titles, advanced to his fifth final. He has won seven majors.

"It's totally unexpected," Boston Globe columnist and NBC commentator Bud Collins said.

Agassi, the sixth seed, last won a major at the 2001 Australian Open. The 17th-seeded Sampras has not won anything since Wimbledon in 2000, a stretch of 33 tournaments.

Against the defending champ, Agassi's precision was too much. Hewitt led 3-0 in the opening set but watched Agassi take over with two service breaks and seven straight games without an unforced error.

Hewitt is known for consistently retrieving shots that look untouchable, but Agassi appeared to have more energy.

"He was too good," Hewitt said.

Breaks in the ninth and 11th games of the second set allowed Agassi to force a tiebreaker. He went up 5-2 and won the set on a Hewitt forehand miscue, one of 49 unforced errors. Hewitt, who only once in his career has won after being down two sets, rallied from a 4-1 deficit to win the third set. But Agassi ended the drama 33 minutes later, breaking Hewitt twice in the fourth.

In his five previous matches, Hewitt lost his serve four times. Agassi had nine breaks Saturday, at least two in each set.

"I should have closed out the third, but that's the way the match is going to go with a guy like Lleyton and with a game like mine," Agassi said. Sampras was systematic, if not spectacular. Several times he let break chances escape but cooly won tiebreakers in the first and second sets. After winning the first set he turned to the crowd and screamed, "That's what I'm talking about."

In the third set Sampras appeared fresh and consistently unleased serves at 125 mph. He hit 17 winners to Schalken's two, earned two breaks and held a 20-1 points-won advantage at the net. On match point Sampras iced it with a perfect volley and waved to the crowd, which stood on its feet and loudly cheered.

Sampras lost to Hewitt in last year's final and looked unfit at times. At least today he'll be playing another old guy.

"It's a pretty tough turnaround emotionally and physically, but I feel I can do it," Sampras said.

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